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Professional Companionship

Ideas presented in this blog have been expanded on but were first shared on the Semann and Slattery Educational Leaders National Tour that I was fortunate to present at across 7 Australian states in 2023.


There is something about the word professional companionship that brings joy and makes my heart sing! It holds a heartfelt hope and aspiration that I can lean on as I continue to define the way I work as a pedagogical leader with others. I am drawn to the literature where it defines professional companionship as:


“A trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend”

(Costa & Kallick cited in Pelo & Carter, 2018, p78)


A critical friend

‘’sees you in the fullness of who you are and who you can become”

(Daloz & Parks cited in Pelo & Carter, 2018, p78)



Professional companionship (for me) implies that I must learn to ‘walk with’ rather than to ‘tell how’ and it invites a strong sense of self-awareness and insight about one’s practice as an early childhood professional. This suggests that we both learn when we are in pedagogical companionship, it is not ME teaching or guiding others alone. Personally I genuinely want to learn with others and this is how I want to be as a leader. It feels softer. It feels respectful. It feels professional. As a pedagogical leader, I also want to be called into question when I engage in dialogue with my colleagues as differences emerge, demonstrating I am open to professional accountability, not merely being accepted for my word because of my position. I desire more than compliance.


Sometimes I wonder if we got it all wrong with how we position the role of educational leadership in the Australian early childhood context, particularly when I observe first hand so many educational leaders entrenched and bound by systems that keep them on never ending cycles of checking, auditing and reporting. It is time to stop with systems that just bind people up and stop them from thinking. Maybe we have created a role which is so focused on everyone ‘getting it right’ that we have forgotten the absolute gift of what it means to get things wrong?


Perhaps it is time to make a radical shift in how we position educational leadership? After 20 years in various roles of leading pedagogy in both New Zealand and Australian contexts I find myself spending my days trying to slow things down, reduce barriers/templates and bring about a more collaborative context for teaching teams. I know I am up against big, systemic historical systems that just simply see this as ‘risky business’ but I am persistent in believing this is the way forward. It simply brings better outcomes for children. Teaching teams who are slow, in dialogue and have a shared purpose for pedagogical engagement tend to listen more deeply and bring both head and heart to their everyday practice – opting to trust in a responsive pedagogy not a prescriptive one.


I am a runner and recently I have been engaging with weights to gain more core strength. You might relate to me when you think about the morning after a weights session when you roll out of bed and realise the muscle stiffness you are contending with – its uncomfortable and awkward for a few days right? This is a necessary part of the strength building process, you have to put a load on your muscles in order to gain new strength. The soreness we experience is caused by a micro tear in the muscle which then heals and adapts making your muscles stronger and stronger. I think about this process of gaining strength as a metaphor for the role of educational leadership where we are part of building that strength in our teams through:

  • Offering tension and stretch

  • Making the familiar strange

  • Acting as a bridge from one place to another

  • Creating cognitive knots (term I heard first in Reggio Emilia)

  • Working with contradictions

  • Activating somersaults in thinking

  • Holding space for not knowing

Dialogue itself is the process toward transformation, Carla Rinaldi reminds us that we have to lose the possibility of controlling the final result otherwise it is simply monologue.


Adam Grants (2021, p28) rethinking cycle invites us to consider the role of thinking in our practice and it starts first with recognising our shortcomings which opens the door to doubt. Whilst this might feel unstable and uncertain this is a place we begin to question our current understandings and it is then we become curious about what information we are missing. This search leads us to new discoveries and invites the important role of research into our practice. From this place of discovery, we experience humility, a process that keeps us open to recognising how much we still have to learn. The opposite to the rethinking cycle illustrated below is the over confidence cycle.

Pueblo (2022) talks about good listeners being able to cope with contradictory ideas and grey areas. They usually know there is more to a moment than what first appears and they are not so eager for tidy reasoning and immediate answers. Perhaps an opportunity to reimagine the way we listen to others and to ourselves as pedagogical leaders?

  • When I listen, what happens inside of me and what do I hear myself often saying? Do I look for tidy reasoning, boundaries or reinforcement of practices always done OR am I open to wondering and imagining?

  • How might listening curate a space for educators that invites brave conversations and intellectual honesty?

 

CASE STUDY - a story of pedagogical companionship by educator Casey Newell

The Learning Space / Team Leader for under 3's

Over the last term, our team has been working hard to collate data on our current Inquiry researching how children are inclined to personify nature. We have found the children’s ideas and wonderings have been extremely complex and have taken us in many varying directions. Though, personally I have found it difficult to find a beautiful and engaging way to present complex ideas and information back to children and families about teaching and learning. In the past I have always felt passionately about displaying large pieces of writing to make sure I have captured every single detail that the children have explored. I have learnt that these essays are not always something a parent will have the time to read during those quick morning drop-offs. Having the opportunity to sit down and discuss our inquiry with Kelly has been so important in bringing this piece of pedagogical documentation to life and with clarity. It was fulfilling being able to share my excitement and thinking with a colleague. Through these collaborative meetings over a period of a few weeks, we were able to reflect and explore a variety of readings and data gathered about children's engagement to help us better understand the theories children were showing us. Together we were able to condense the data through a process of analysis to build a more impactful final piece of documentation that is now displayed as wallpaper in our hallway for children and families.

Since the installation of our wall piece it has been rewarding to see both families and children pausing to engage and reflect on the complex ideas they have been explored throughout the term regarding our relationship with trees. Children are eager to identify their contributions and proudly share them with their families, creating a basis for conversation about pedagogy and practice.

Professional companionship invites a position of collaboration and Parnell (2011) distinguish many benefits of what it means to be in dialogue:

  • We situate professional learning in the context of educator practice – real moments

  • We make meaning together and develop our way of listening to children that moves beyond the surface

  • We reduce professional isolation and value the generative ideas that collaboration brings.

  • We engage with intellectual riguour which is professionally satisfying

  • We keep each other accountable to our shared ideas as opposed to working with individualism.

  • We create a culture where mistakes are valued parts of learning, unlearning and relearning

  • We value early childhood educators and what they offer regardless of position, status or role.


Pedagogical leadership is both responsibility and opportunity. It is important to ask ourselves: Do I want to be a pedagogical leader bound by technical processes that enforce a right and wrong way to teaching and learning OR do I want to be an pedagogical leader that walks in companionship with educators, allowing space for thinking and learning together?


What does that mean for me today.....

 

References

Grant, A. Think again: The power of knowing what you don’t know. Viking, Penguin Random House; New York, New York.

Parnell, W. (2011). Teacher Collaboration Experiences: Finding the extraordinary in the everyday moments. Early Childhood Research and Practice, Vol 13, No2.

Pelo, A., & Carter, M. (2018). From teaching to thinking: A Pedagogy for Reimagining Our Work. Lincoln, NE: Exchange Press.

Pueblo, Y. (2022). Lighter – let go of the past, connect with the present and expand the future. Penguin Random House, UK.

Grant, A. Think again: The power of knowing what you don’t know. Viking, Penguin Random House; New York, New York.


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